Nine in 10 young people in the UAE want the country's environment prioritised in decision-making.
Three quarters said reducing single-use plastic should be one of the first issues tackled and almost all said not enough people understood the long-term risks associated with exploiting nature and its resources.
The findings were revealed in a study titled Is Nature a Priority for UAE Youth in the Covid-19 Recovery?The study was by Emirates Nature-WWF, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, in collaboration with the Federal Youth Authority.
Over the past five months, 1,600 young people were asked about their views on the environment, personal responsibility, the Covid-19 pandemic, and food and water security.
Dr Abdullah Al Nuaimi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment; Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth Affairs, and Huda Al Hashimi, chief of strategy and government innovation for the UAE government, presented the results during a session with 370 young people.
"Covid-19 has provided us with the urgency to reflect and realise that we need to act differently," Dr Al Nuaimi said.
He said the stay-home orders showed it was possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "if we put our minds to it". Abu Dhabi reported a 62 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels when movement was restricted.
"Now I know what to tackle, and where we went wrong in, for example, food security, safety, plantation and so forth," Dr Al Nuaimi said.
Almost all polled said they were concerned about food security and 89 per cent said they would be willing to include alternative proteins, such as insects or algae, in their diets.
Food waste was also highlighted as a key area of concern for young people with 99 per cent saying they were in complete agreement that sustainable diets and nature-friendly food production should be a priority.
Reliance on imports in the UAE is in part due to the challenge of producing food locally. Fresh water is scarce and only 5 per cent of land is arable.
At least 73 per cent of the young people polled said overconsumption was the behaviour they would most like to see changed for good.
They suggested behavioural science be applied using technology and AI to make systemic changes.
"The introduction of flexible remote working during the pandemic has exposed opportunities to optimise efficiency and move to a more local and self-sufficient way of life," the study read.
Only one in five young people said they wanted life to go back to normal post Covid-19 and 58 per cent said they did not feel the world was prepared for another pandemic.
“This Covid-19 pandemic was a great reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature, because it is deforestation and loss of wildlife that cause an increase in infectious diseases. As studies show, for every dollar spent on nature restoration, at least $9 of economic benefits can be expected. I think is it very doable if everyone sets out to steer our Earth in a better way,” said Sewit Kahsai, one of the participants in the study.
Participants said it was down to every individual to be responsible and make personal choices that would help conserve the environment.
At least 96 per cent said they would favour brands that support a green recovery with almost four in five people saying they would like to see an increased culture of social responsibility and environmental conservation in the UAE.
A solution presented by 92 per cent of those polled was to encourage traditional values and practices that connect people with nature and minimise pressure on the environment.
“The UAE’s culture and traditions are filled with behaviours and examples that show different ways of minimising the pressure on the environment," said Omran Al Mazrouei, a participant in the study.
"We must observe and learn from our grandfathers' lifestyles and how they optimised the available resources with minimal carbon footprint and low environmental pressure.”
Two thirds of the participants said it was not enough for policies to be put in place and that more regulation and enforcement was needed to ensure its success.
They said more protected areas were needed across the country and proposed a centralised tool to provide them with information about the environmental effects of companies, products and services.
They also said incentives were needed to encourage non-motorised and shared transport, to improve air quality.
The aim of the study is to help inform policies in the UAE.
“Engaging youth and NGOs, such as Emirates Nature-WWF, in designing the future and developing strategies for the most vital sectors is a national priority,” said Ms Al Hashimi, from the UAE government.
“This in turn shall contribute to boosting the government's efforts aiming at transforming innovative ideas into a tangible reality, positively affecting people’s well-being.”